Tragedy of the Commons

A Jewish perspective on a seminal essay of the modern environmentalist movement

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Rabbi Feinstein responded as follows: "Even though one of the smokers [by himself] would do no real damage because his smoke would be nullified in a big room like a study hall, nevertheless, since each smoker knows that there are many other smokers [in the place, and therefore, cumulatively, there will be a lot of damaging smoke], he knows that his smoke [also] causes damage and he's directly causing damage."

Each of us must focus on his responsibility to others--regardless of what others are doing. An individual is not allowed to say, "Since I'm only one of many people contributing to the problem, I'm not responsible. After all, even without me, the damage would have occurred and if I was the only one doing the activity it wouldn't have been enough damage to have mattered." When each individual recognizes his true place in the world and assumes personal responsibility for his actions, there need never be another tragedy of the commons.

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Rabbi Akiva Wolff is director of the environmental responsibility unit of the Center for Business Ethics in Jerusalem. He also teaches environmental management at the Jerusalem College of Technology--Machon Lev.